[By Candice Jones]
When former head of the SA National Defence Force, Gen (Ret) Siphiwe Nyanda, was appointed as minister of communications last year, there was much grumbling.
“What does a military man know about communications?” quickly became the general sentiment.
There were even rumours that President Jacob Zuma might have bungled the announcement, placing Nyanda in communications and Lindiwe Sisulu in defence by accident, even though Sisulu has an extensive background in intelligence.
After a few months, Nyanda had done far more than his predecessor Ivy Matsepe-Casaburri had accomplished in her entire term in office, quickly killing industry perceptions and proving his value in the position.
He started by cleaning up the mess at the SABC and appointing a strong-willed industry stalwart, Mamodupi Mohlala, as his director-general.
Together, Nyanda and Mohlala stormed the telecommunications industry, convincing operators to cut the rates they charge each other to carry calls onto each other’s networks.
Looking at his achievements since his appointment, it would be a shame if he is brought down by the many scandals that have surfaced against him in recent months.
The first hint of trouble was brought to light by an opposition party investigation, which revealed Nyanda was staying at costly hotels in Cape Town instead of his government-provided home. By his own admission to parliament, he spent R500 000 in various hotels between April 2009 and March 2010.
This is not to mention the millions the ministry spent on two new BMWs at the taxpayers’ expense. Both indiscretions were swept aside and relatively easily forgotten. But the trouble kept coming.
Late last year, Nyanda became embroiled in alleged tender scandals, where a company associated with him was awarded a R55m contract by Transnet and a R67m contract by the Gauteng department of roads and transport.
Now, allegations in Business Day suggest Nyanda and Mohlala are at odds, with the minister on the path to suspending the director-general, apparently because she refused to sign departmental tenders.
Talk of tension between the minister and the director-general has been swirling for several weeks, with TechCentral hearing of concerns by Nyanda over the department’s reconsidering of digital terrestrial television broadcasting standards.
The Democratic Alliance has since decided to approach the Public Protector to investigate any tenders related to Nyanda and awarded by the communications department, despite Nyanda’s assertions that the media reports are “false and malicious”.
So far, the minister has escaped with little sanction. But it might not be long before he is held to account.
The trouble is, SA needs a strong and decisive communications department — well, that or no communications department at all.
Matsepe-Casaburri’s reign is a prime example of what happens if you allow monopolies to flourish unchecked. On the other hand, Nyanda’s first few months in office made it seem as if he were made for the job.
But perhaps the vision I have of Nyanda is clouded by his strong start in the job, when he seemed to be making considered efforts to resolve the many problems facing the industry.
And though he did make some bold moves, he wasn’t really working off a high base of expectation given who his predecessor was.
It’s not that I don’t think he shouldn’t be held accountable for his actions – corruption, if he is indeed guilty of it, can never be excused. The fact that someone who has tried to do the right thing for telecoms in SA is now under a cloud is a general shame.